Robert Greenleaf on Servant-Leadership

A black and white photo portrait of Robert Greenleaf
Author and scholar Robert Greenleaf developed the concept of servant-leadership.

September 26, 2023
The International Journal of Servant-Leadership

Below you’ll find Robert K. Greenleaf's timeless essay "Who is the Servant-Leader?" along with a brief introduction written by Gonzaga University Professor of Leadership Studies, and editor of the International Journal of Servant-Leadership, Dr. Shann Ray Ferch, PhD, MFA

This piece appeared in the first volume of the International Journal of Servant-Leadership (IJSL), a publication issued by Gonzaga University in collaboration with the Spears Center for Servant-Leadership. The IJSL's complete archives are available online.

Gonzaga University's School of Leadership Studies is internationally recognized for its focus on servant-leadership, attracting undergraduate, masters, and PhD students from throughout the world. Four of our Gonzaga University PhD alumni from the School of Leadership Studies have won national awards for their research in servant-leadership, and the Doctoral Program in Leadership Studies faculty and alumni have published 5 critically acclaimed anthologies on servant-leadership: Servant-Leadership, Feminism, and Gender Well-Being; Servant-Leadership and Forgiveness; Conversations on Servant-Leadership; Global Servant-Leadership; and The Spirit of Servant-Leadership.

Robert K. Greenleaf coined the term servant-leadership in his seminal 1970 essay, "The Servant as Leader." The servant-leader concept has had a deep and lasting influence over the past three decades on many modern leadership ideas and practices. Greenleaf spent his first career of 40 years at AT&T, retiring as director of management research in 1964. That same year Greenleaf founded The Center for Applied Ethics (later renamed The Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership). He went on to have an illustrious 25-year second career as an author, a teacher, and a consultant. Greenleaf, who died in 1990, was the author of numerous books and essays on the theme of the servant as leader. His available published books now include The Servant-Leader Within (2003), Servant-Leadership (2002, 1977), The Power of Servant-Leadership (1998), On Becoming a Servant-Leader (1996), and Seeker and Servant (1996), along with many other separately published essays that are available through The Greenleaf Center.

This short excerpt from Greenleaf' s essay "The Servant as Leader" contains an essential understanding of the origin of the term and definition of servant-leader. Here Greenleaf relates how his reading of Hermann Hesse's Journey to the East led to his developing the servant-as-leader terminology.

Who Is the Servant-Leader?

By Robert K. Greenleaf

Servant and leader–can these two roles be fused in one real person, in all levels of status or calling? If so, can that person live and be productive in the real world of the present? My sense of the present leads me to say yes to both questions. This chapter is an attempt to explain why and to suggest how.

The idea of the servant as leader came out of reading Hermann Hesse's Journey to the East. In this story we see a band of men on a mythical journey, probably also Hesse's own journey. The central figure of the story is Leo, who accompanies the party as the servant who does their menial chores, but who also sustains them with his spirit and his song. He is a person of extraordinary presence. All goes well until Leo disappears. Then the group falls into disarray and the journey is abandoned. They cannot make it without the servant Leo. The narrator, one of the party, after some
years of wandering, finds Leo and is taken into the Order that had sponsored the journey. There he discovers that Leo, whom he had known first as servant, was in fact the titular head of the Order, its guiding spirit, a great and noble leader.

One can muse on what Hesse was trying to say when he wrote this story. We know that most of his fiction was autobiographical, that he led a tortured life, and that Journey to the East suggests a turn toward the serenity he achieved in his old age. There has been much speculation by critics on Hesse's life and work, some of it centering on this story, which they find
the most puzzling. But to me, this story clearly says that the great leader is seen as servant first, and that simple fact is the key to his greatness. Leo was actually the leader all of the time, but he was servant first because that was what he was, deep down inside. Leadership was bestowed on a man who was by nature a servant. It was something given, or assumed, that could be taken away. His servant nature was the real man, not bestowed, not assumed, and not to be taken away. He was servant first.

I mention Hesse and Journey to the East for two reasons. First, I want to acknowledge the source of the idea of the servant as leader. Then I want to use this reference as an introduction to a brief discussion of prophecy.

In 1958 when I first read about Leo, if I had been listening to contemporary prophecy as intently as I do now, the first draft of this piece might have been written then. As it was, the idea lay dormant for 11 years during which I came to believe that we in this country were in a leadership crisis and that I should do what I could about it. I became painfully aware of how dull my sense of contemporary prophecy had been. And I have reflected much on why we do not hear and heed the prophetic voices in our midst (not a new question in our times, nor more critical than heretofore).

I now embrace the theory of prophecy which holds that prophetic voices of great clarity, and with a quality of insight equal to that of any age, are speaking cogently all of the time. Men and women of a stature equal to the greatest prophets of the past are with us now, addressing the problems of the day and pointing to a better way to live fully and serenely in these times.

The variable that marks some periods as barren and some as rich in prophetic vision is in the interest, the level of seeking, and the responsiveness of the bearers. The variable is not in the presence or absence or the relative quality and force of the prophetic voices. Prophets grow in stature as people respond to their message. If their early attempts are ignored or spumed, their talent may wither away.

It is seekers, then, who make prophets, and the initiative of any one of us in searching for and responding to the voice of contemporary prophets may mark the turning point in their growth and service. But since we are the product of our own history, we see current prophecy within the context of past wisdom. We listen to as wide a range of contemporary thought as
we can attend to. Then we choose those we elect to heed as prophets-both old and new-and meld their advice with our own leadings. This we test in real-life experiences to establish our own position.

One does not, of course, ignore the great voices of the past. One does not awaken each morning with the compulsion to reinvent the wheel. But if one is servant, either leader or follower, one is always searching, listening, expecting that a better wheel for these times is in the making. It may emerge any day. Any one of us may discover it from personal experience. I am hopeful.

I am hopeful for these times, despite the tension and conflict, because more natural servants are trying to see clearly the world as it is and are listening carefully to prophetic voices that are speaking now. They are challenging the pervasive injustice with greater force, and they are taking sharper issue with the wide disparity between the quality of society they know is reasonable and possible with available resources and the actual performance of the institutions that exist to serve society.

A fresh, critical look is being taken at the issues of power and authority, and people are beginning to learn, however haltingly, to relate to one another in less coercive and more creatively supporting ways. A new moral principle is emerging, which holds that the only authority deserving one's allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted by the led to the leader in response to, and in proportion to, the clearly evident servant stature of the leader. Those who choose to follow this principle will not casually accept the authority of existing institutions. Rather, they will freely respond only to individuals who are chosen as leaders because they are proven and trusted as servants. To the extent that this principle prevails in the future, the only truly viable institutions will be those that are predominantly servant-led.

I am mindful of the long road ahead before these trends, which I see so clearly, become a major society-shaping force. We are not there yet. But I see encouraging movement on the horizon.

What direction will the movement take? Much depends on whether those who stir the ferment will come to grips with the age-old problem of how to live in a human society. I say this because so many, having made their awesome decision for autonomy and independence from tradition, and having taken their firm stand against injustice and hypocrisy, find it hard to convert themselves into affirmative builders of a better society. How many of them will seek their personal fulfillment by making the hard choices, and by undertaking the rigorous preparation that building a better society
requires? It all depends on what kind of leaders emerge and how they–we–respond to them.

My thesis, that more servants should emerge as leaders, or should follow only servant-leaders, is not a popular one. It is much more comfortable to go with a less-demanding point of view about what is expected of one now. There are several undemanding, plausibly argued alternatives from which to choose. One, since society seems corrupt, is to seek to avoid the center of it by retreating to an idyllic existence that minimizes involvement with the "system" (with the system that makes such withdrawal possible). Then there is the assumption that since the effort to reform existing institutions has not brought instant perfection, the remedy is to destroy them completely so that fresh, new, perfect ones can grow. Not much thought seems to be given to the problem of where the new seed will come from or who the gardener to tend them will be. The concept of the servant-leader stands in sharp contrast to this kind of thinking.

Yet it is understandable that the easier alternatives would be chosen, especially by young people. By extending education for so many so far into the adult years, normal participation in society is effectively denied when young people are ready for it. With education that is preponderantly abstract and analytical it is no wonder that a preoccupation with criticism exists and that not much thought is given to "What can I do about it?"

Criticism has its place, but as a total preoccupation it is sterile. In a time of crisis, like the leadership crisis we are now in, if too many potential builders are completely absorbed with dissecting the wrong and striving for instant perfection, then the movement so many of us want to see will be set back. The danger, perhaps, is to hear the analyst too much and the artist too little.

Albert Camus stands apart from other great artists of his time, in my view, and deserves the title of prophet, because of his unrelenting demand that each of us confront the exacting terms of our own existence, and, like Sisyphus, accept our rock and find our happiness by dealing with it. Camus sums up the relevance of his position to our concern for the servant as leader in the last paragraph of his last published lecture, entitled Create Dangerously:

One may long, as I do, for a gentler flame, a respite, a pause for musing. But perhaps there is no other peace for the artist than what he finds in the heat of combat. "Every wall is a door," Emerson correctly said. Let us not look for the door, and the way out, anywhere but in the wall against which we are living. Instead, let us seek the respite where it is–in the very thick of battle. For in my opinion, and this is where I shall close, it is there. Great ideas, it has been said, come into the world as gently as doves. Perhaps, then, if we listen attentively, we shall hear, amid the uproar of empires and nations, a faint flutter of wings, the gentle stirring of life and hope. Some will say that this hope lies in a nation; others, in a man. I believe rather that it is awakened, revived, nourished by millions of solitary individuals whose deeds and works every day negate frontiers and the crudest implications of history. As a result, there shines forth fleetingly the ever-threatened truth that each and every man, on the foundations of his own sufferings and joys, builds for them all.

Who Is the Servant-Leader?

The servant-leader is servant first–as Leo was portrayed. Becoming a servant-leader begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. For such people, it will be a later choice to serve–>after leadership is established. The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them are the shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.

The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant first to make sure that other people's highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and most difficult to administer, is this: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived?

All of this rests on the assumption that the only way to change a society ( or just make it go) is to produce people, enough people, who will change it (or make it go). The urgent problems of our day–the disposition to venture into immoral and senseless wars, destruction of the environment, poverty, alienation, discrimination, overpopulation–exist because of human failures, individual failures, one-person-at-a-time, one-action-at-a time failures.

If we make it out of all of this (and this is written in the belief that we will), the system will be whatever works best. The builders will find the useful pieces wherever they are, and invent new ones when needed, all without reference to ideological coloration. "How do we get the right things done?" will be the watchword of the day, every day. And the context of those who bring it on will be: All men and women who are touched by the effort grow taller, and become healthier, stronger, more autonomous, and more disposed to serve.

Leo the servant, and the exemplar of the servant-leader, has one further portent for us. If we assume that Hermann Hesse is the narrator in Journey to the East (not a difficult assumption to make), at the end of the story he establishes his identity. His final confrontation at the close of his initiation into the Order is with a small transparent sculpture: two figures joined together. One is Leo, the other is the narrator. The narrator notes that a movement of substance is taking place within the transparent sculpture.

I perceived that my image was in the process of adding to and flowing into Leo's, nourishing and strengthening it. It seemed that, in time... only one would remain: Leo. He must grow, I must disappear. As I stood there and looked and tried to understand what I saw, I recalled a short conversation that I had once had with Leo during the festive days at Bremgarten. We had talked about the creations of poetry being more vivid and real than the poets themselves.

What Hesse may be telling us here is that Leo is the symbolic personification of Hesse's aspiration to serve through his literary creations-creations that are greater than Hesse himself-and that his work, for which he was but the channel. will carry on and serve and lead in a way that he, a twisted and tormented man, could not-as he created.

Does not Hesse dramatize, in extreme form, the dilemma of us all?

Except as we venture to create, we cannot project ourselves beyond ourselves to serve and lead. To which Camus would add: Create dangerously! 


Find more essays, theory and research from the International Journal of Servant-Leadership.
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